I want to focus on the following statements Paul made in his letter to the Romans:
“[T]he mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject[i]itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so….
“[C]reation was subjected[ii]to futility[iii], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free ….”
Romans 8: 20-21
Life and death, the universe and all the “stuff” that is, ever was and ever will be are “in God’s hands”. That is another way of saying that God created everything. God is timeless and immaterial and has created all that is material out of nothing, including us.
But the material world, the world as we know it, is passing away (1 John 2:17), even from the moment it was created! That’s what science (the second law of thermodynamics) tells us also. The world has been has been “winding down” since the “Big Bang”.
Paul’s statement about the “futility” to which the world has been subjected suggests that futility is part of God’s ultimate plan, because it was done “in hope”.
If that doesn’t add up for you, I don’t think you are alone. I have been puzzling on it for awhile. What possibly could be the plan?
The trite response that “God’s ways are not our ways” falls short. We want to know, though perhaps it’s true that we may never completely understand. Still, I have some ideas that are informed by Scripture that I will try to lay out in this article.
The story of the Tower of Babel is included in Scripture for a reason, right? So, Why is it there? How does the tower of Babel fit into God’s redemptive plans and purposes?
These are questions we should think to ask. In fact, Scripture is designed, according the Hebrew thinking, to invite us to ask questions.
Western thinking might assume that we just take things on faith and don’t ask questions. Or the opposite: take it at face value and dismiss it when we find problems (“contradictions”) in the text.
God wants us to seek Him, and that includes asking questions of Scripture, wrestling with it, and finding answers to our questions. We don’t exhibit a lack of faith when we find problems in Scripture and ask questions.
We can hold to a high view of Scripture and admit there are “problems” in the text . Those problems may lead to some real gems in the answers they reveal.
God desires us to seek him and find him, as Paul says to the philosophers in Athens. (Acts17:27) Jesus, of course, promised that those who ask, seek, and knock will be answered, will find, and the door will be open to them. (Matthew 7:7) Faith enters when we use the problems we see as the springboard to seek answers.
I recently wrote an article on the Tower of Babel story exploring some of the questions it invites us to ask, and trying on answers that are suggested by a more eastern (Hebrew) mindset than most westerners might be adopt.
One question we might ask is: why is the story there to begin with?
We might assume the story is simply an explanation for how people became scattered all over the world in different language groups. How questions, though, miss the most important meaning of Scripture. If we stop there, and assume there is no more to know, we may be missing the most important part of the story.
A Hebrew (or eastern) mind always asks, “Why?”
I resonate with this basic practice incorporated into the BEMA Podcast because of a Jewish professor I had in college. He explained one day the difference between the western and eastern approaches to Scripture. He illustrated it with the following example.
If the universe consisted of a chair in a room, people with western minds and eastern minds would approach the chair differently. The westerner would measure the height, width, depth and mass of the chair. He would weigh it and measure the distance of the chair from the walls and the ceiling. The easterner (the Hebrew) would start by asking, “Why is the chair here?”
In my previous article, I discussed how the story is a chiasm (a type of poetry). A chiasm puts emphasis on the middle verse. In this story, the emphasis is on the people’s desire to “make a name for ourselves” because “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the earth”. (Gen. 11:4)
Why were they concerned about being scattered? Why does God care? What is God doing in confusing their languages and scattering them?
For starters, God does not break into the story when they are making bricks. God isn’t threatened or concerned about their development of new technology. He doesn’t break into the story until they say they are going to build a tower to make a name for themselves.
We also need to be mindful, always, of context. The context here is that people are moving away from God, away from his plans. (Moving east.) God wanted them to multiply and fill the earth, but they wanted to put down roots in the plains of Shinar (Babylon) and build a tower to exalt themselves, lest they be scattered.
This was the instruction from God to Adam and Eve. It was the instruction from God to Noah. God said, “Multiply and fill the earth.”
Building a tower to make a name for themselves, in this context, means wanting to pursue their own plans to achieve their own ends. The concern about being scattered suggests they knew they were doing their own thing contrary to God’s plans for them. They might have feared being scattered because it would disrupt their plans.
Maybe they thought God couldn’t scatter them if they built a fortified tower. Maybe they were trying to make God deal with them on their own terms, in a location they established, by a structure by which they thought could ascend to God and control where God met with them.
Of course, God did exactly what they feared, and scattered them. against their wishes. But why? Was God threatened by them? Um…., no. So why did God scatter them?
I believe the answer lies partly in the fact that they were pursuing their own plans in exultation of themselves. Their plans were not consistent with God’s plans, and they knew it (thus, there fear of being scattered for doing it).
God had other plans, and God frustrated their plans that were not in keeping with His plans. That might all seem arbitrary unless we keep asking questions and seeking answers. Why were the peoples’ plans something God couldn’t abide?
They interfered with God’s plans, but how? What were God’s plans?
I have been listening to the BEMA podcast. I highly recommend it. As summarized one the website, “‘BEMA’ (or bimah) is a Hebrew word that refers to the elevated platform in the center of first-century synagogues where the people of God read the Text.”
The early Christians knew their Scripture. They built their lives around it. They devoted themselves to it, and to prayer, and the apostles reaching, and to fellowship and shared meals. (Acts 2:42
The BEMA podcast attempts to approach Scripture the way easterners would have, the way the early Christians in the Middle East would have approached it. My Jewish professor in college told us one day that Jews were not westerners; they were easterners, and they thought differently than westerners.
Christianity quickly became westernized, but it’s origins are eastern. We would do well to gain some new perspective from a more eastern way of thinking. I encourage you to listen to the first couple of episodes of the podcast linked in the opening paragraph if you want an introduction to an eastern perspective of the Bible.
Reading the first 11 chapters of Genesis from an eastern, Hebraic perspective, opens up new insights. Not the least of which is the genre of literature these chapters represent. They are poetry. They are chiasms with intricate organization and emphasis that is found in the structure of the chiasms.
The Tower of Babel story is one of the chiastic passages in Genesis. The story actually begins in the Hebrew with the last verse of Chapter 10 (as it is organized in English Bibles), and it goes like this (ESV):
These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Hebrew has no vowels, only consonants. There are vowel signs over the consonants that denote where breaths should be taken for anyone reading Hebrew out loud.
The consonants in this chiasm are repetitive: N, B, L, H; then H, L, B, N in reverse. There is a front half and a back half. The middle of the story is 11:4, which I have emphasized by bolding it.
The verse in the middle of the chiasm is where the emphasis lies: the peoples’ concern about being scattered over the face of the earth. They didn’t want to be scattered.
Why not? That’s the question we should be prompted to ask.
I am not sure I can do any justice to the layers of meaning and the questions that arise in these verses in a short blog post. I can only scratch the surface, but here goes….
Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jews in Babylon. The Jews were exiled by God’s doing. He has been warning them about it regularly. Then, it happened. I am sure they were stunned anyway. Jeremiah opens his letter saying:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon….”[i]
God put you and I where we are, also. What God says to the Babylonian exiles then is instructive for us today, wherever we are.
I am going to break what Jeremiah says down and apply it to our world today, but first we need to set the stage. We need to step back and consider the big picture.
“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this [marking out our appointed times and where we live] so that [we] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27)
Nothing in all of human history has caught God off guard. God saw the sweep and the details of that history from before time. He also knew you.
He knew where you would be born. He knew the hairs on your head. He knew the smiles and frowns on your face, your thoughts and every word that would slip from your mouth before they were even said. (Echoing Psalm 139)
God saw the United States of America, and all the nations of the world before they were established, their course in history and their demise. What we call future isn’t future to God. He exists outside of time. He existed before time began to tick. He exists now, and He exists in our future.
God is orchestrating the people, the times, the events in history for one end. John caught a glimpse of that end when he saw people of every nation, tribe and tongue gathered around the throne of the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9) Has Paul described God’s plan and purpose this way,
The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
All creation is in on the purposes of God and is waiting for the fulfillment of God’s plan
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it,
Our present conditions are part of God’s plans and part of the ultimate purposes of God to be accomplished in the world He set in motion
in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
God’s plan and purpose is for creation to be freed from the present futility to which He subjected it as we obtain the freedom of becoming His children.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
It was so from the beginning. When Eve fell in the garden, God increased her pain in childbirth….
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies
When we are born again, by faith in God’s grace, and receive the Spirit, we taste the fruit of the life God offers and look forward to our ultimate redemption.
God’s Ultimate Plan
God marked out the appointed times in history of all the peoples of the earth and the boundaries of their lands throughout time, and that history is part of the larger creation that is waiting in eager expectation for the plans and purposes of God to be worked out in us and, ultimately, in creation. We are part of that plan.
We are at the center of the plans and purposes of God, who made us. Of all the creatures God created, we alone are created in His image. The creation waits eagerly for us to engage in that plan and purpose of God – each one of us and us, and us collectively.
Like the people of Judah in Babylon, we find ourselves exiles and strangers in the earth (1 Peter 2:11), if indeed we have been born again, born from above. When we are born again, we are born of the Spirit (John 3:1-21) by which we gain entry to the kingdom of God, which kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:36).
“But to all who … receive him, who [believe] in his name, he [gives] the right to become children of God, who [are] born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12)
When we receive Him, He gives us “the right to become children of God”. Though God knew us and “chose us in Him from before the foundation of the earth” (Eph. 1:4), He gives us, at the same time, the right (exousia, the right or authority) to become His children – it isn’t a forgone conclusion – at least not from our perspective.
We have to receive it, to begin with, and to believe (trust and commit to) it. In more popular parlance, we have to walk in it. Indeed, Jesus calls us as disciples to follow after Him, to “walk” the way he walked, to live as he lived. Paul says it this was:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:1-8)
Jesus is no longer with us to demonstrate in person how to walk as he walked, but we have Scripture and the Holy Spirit as our guide. Indeed, all Scripture “is God-breathed” (inspired), and it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, so that we can be “thoroughly equipped for every good work”. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) The people who first heard these words would have thought primarily of what we call the Old Testament.
What we find in Jeremiah’s words to the people of Judah exiled in Babylon are instruction for those of us today who are exiled as aliens and strangers in this present world (if indeed we have truly been born again). What he says may not fit the modern Church narrative and example, though – or at least the poplar notion of what that is.
In the service this morning, the message was about Joseph. As often happens, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The depth and nuance and intricate tapestry that is Scripture often works that way.
I will get to the point, but first, I need to build the backstory. Most readers know of Joseph, so I will be brief. Joseph was the youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the famous son of Abraham. Abraham was the man of faith to whom God gave the following promise:
“Go from your country [land] and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)
I added the emphasis and will come back to it. In the meantime, we need to recall that Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, who were jealous of him. They plotted to kill him and left him for dead in the bottom of a well. He was “rescued” by a passing caravan that sold him into slavery in Egypt.
We could say much about the story of Joseph, but I want to fast forward. Joseph’s life teetered on the edge of utter desperation. He experienced a series of very high highs and very low lows. God ultimately blessed Joseph and elevated him to the second most powerful position in Egypt because of Joseph’s faithful use of the gifts and wisdom God gave him.
Many years after his brothers left him for dead, Joseph superintended a massive grain storage plan for Egypt that positioned his “adoptive” country to weather a long, severe famine and provide food for all its people and other nations besides. That same famine prompted his brothers to travel to Egypt when they were on the verge starvation and desperation.
When they arrived and got inline to buy grain, they had no idea they were appearing before their brother, Joseph, but Joseph recognized them and asked them to go back to Canaan and bring his father, Jacob, back down to Egypt with them.
Joseph’s brothers, his father and the whole tribe returned to Egypt. When they returned and finally realized the powerful man who sent them for their father was Joseph, they were ashamed. They also feared retribution against them for their betrayal, but Joseph was gracious and gave them favorable living conditions until Jacob died.
This is the point of the story that was addressed in the service today. Joseph’s brothers were fearful, still, that he held a grudge after Jacob died and would pay them back for their betrayal. (Gen. 50: 15) They didn’t immediately go to Joseph. Instead, they sent a message to Joseph containing instructions their father, Jacob, gave them to say to Joseph: “’I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’” (Gen. 50: 17)
Much could be said about the fact that they sent their father’s instructions to them, rather than their own, delivering own, heartfelt message to their brother, Joseph, but this story isn’t about them. It’s about Joseph.
“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” (Gen. 50:19-21 ESV) (Emphasis added)